A South Korean court has convicted disgraced stem cell scientist, Hwang Woo-Suk, of embezzling funds and purchasing human eggs for research, after a trial lasting over three years. Hwang was given a two-year sentence suspended for three years by the Seoul Central District Court last week.
Hwang published papers in the journal Science claiming to have produced the world's first cloned human embryonic stem cell line using a technique known as SCNT (somatic cell nuclear transfer). After suspicions were raised, his claims were investigated and found to be false. It was also alleged that Hwang paid at least one of his own researchers to donate her eggs to the research, which is forbidden under South Korean law. He was fired from his post at Seoul National University (SNU) and banned from continuing his research.
Hwang was indicted in 2006 of embezzling what was then worth $2 million of funds on the back of the fabricated research from government funding bodies and two private companies. The prosecution also brought charges against him for intentionally fabricating his results and for paying for the eggs.
In his judgment, Judge Bae Ki-ryul found that Hwang 'embezzled nearly 830 million won of funds by money laundering with borrowed-name bank accounts', but cleared him of fraud relating to the private companies, saying they gave money without any expectation they would benefit from the research. 'The funds were given to him voluntarily without any specific guideline on its usage,' ruled Bae. Hwang contested that the money was spent on research but the judge said there was no evidence to support his conclusion. The judge also found Hwang guilty of paying for eggs, saying that 'under the law, any types of egg trade are banned,' and explaining that 'Hwang covered the costs of harvesting ova from the donors, which is illegal.' However, the Prosecution did not pursue charges for fabricating his results. Although the Prosecution sought a four year prison sentence, the judge was lenient, referring to Hwang's apparent commitment to scientific research, in addition to not having a previous criminal record and his expression of remorse.
In April, the South Korean government lifted the ban on Hwang, who now works at the Sooam Biotech Research Foundation, from engaging in human stem cell research. In June he was awarded the Jang Yeong-sil prize for Scientist of the year. Although the scandal arguably left his reputation in ruins, Hwang continued work on animal cloning and successfully cloned three female Afghan hounds in 2007. Members of his team at SNU have also gone on to make breakthroughs, including the announcement they had cloned wolves in 2007, which, after another investigation, were proved to be genuine. Hwang has even teamed up with a US company, BioArts International, to offer dog cloning services to the public.
Hwang's lawyer said that at present there are no plans for appeal, although the prosecution is considering doing so, according to the Korea Times newspaper.